Wirral Council has moved spending nearly £12m back a year on building a new Birkenhead Market.
The money due to be spent this year will be moved back to the council’s building works budget for the next financial year 2024-25. It comes after weeks of uncertainty about the market’s future and the council’s plans for it.
At a policy and resources committee meeting on 8 November, the local authority’s finance director Matthew Bennett also said the whole budget for the market will need to be reviewed.
According to the council, officers are now working on a full range of options for councillors to consider as it reviews the plans to build a brand new market at the old House of Fraser site on Grange Road in Birkenhead. Demolition has now started on the House of Fraser building.
The local authority recently included in a £73.5m government grant investment plan a proposal to use part of this to refurbish the former Argos store on Princes Pavement.
It’s understood this proposed spend for Argos is £6m and the council is also hoping the government will approve the use of government grant funding to cover nearly £1.57m developing the House of Fraser plans so far.
A capital budget report brought to the 8 November meeting said £11.8m out of £13.3m of this year’s budget for construction of the new market will now be spent in 2024-25 bringing that year’s budget to nearly £26m. The report said £1.5m has already been spent this year.
Cllr Jeff Green queried the £13m figure, adding, “That seems an unrealistic figure given the figure I have heard most recently quoted is over £30m” and asked whether the final budget would be covered.
Mr Bennett pointed councillors to a February committee report that said the total market budget for the next two years would be £27.25m and finished in 2025. The report said this included £14.3m of Future High Streets government grant funding, Wirral Growth Company profits, and money made from land sales called capital receipts.
The February report also said, “It is possible that further work on design and engineering and completion of business case may result in variation and if so this will be reported back to members.”
In November, Mr Bennett said, “We can’t be confident in those figures,” adding, “I’m not sure that budget is realistic. We need to be cognisant to the fact that the funding from the Wirral Growth Company surplus, it’s not been determined how that will be used yet and will need to come back through the committee if it is to be used for the market.”
He also said the council still needed to pay back its £12m emergency loan from the government in 2021 through selling off land and buildings, adding: “The whole budget for the market needs to be reviewed.”
Questions were raised about future market options by Cllr Jo Bird who said she planned to ask whether this would cover a new market at House of Fraser, refurbishing the existing market off Claughton Road, and the alternative proposal of Argos.
However, council leader Cllr Paul Stuart said it was not appropriate given a report would be coming to the council’s economy and regeneration committee in December and later in the meeting asked Director of Regeneration Dave Hughes not to answer the question.
Cllr Stuart added, “You are just doing the same thing as you did earlier. It is already coming to the appropriate committee. A detailed report will be going to the appropriate committee.”
Cllr Bird in response said, “I have clearly hit a nerve. When I hit a nerve, I get interrupted a lot. That is not okay. I am an elected representative and I have a right to speak on behalf of the people I represent.”
Elsewhere in the meeting, councillors gave final approval for £1.6m of government active travel funding for the Europa Boulevard cycle and walking scheme.
An extra £4.5m will also go towards building a “key” substation in Birkenhead that is essential to the local authority’s regeneration plans which is expected to be funded through borrowing.
The council said rising prices and labour costs had significantly increased since the original budget of £3.1m in 2021. The current target is just under £7.5m and grant funding may still be used to cover the scheme.
Image: The former House of Fraser on Grange Road, Birkenhead